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Vermont Roads Dominate the 2014 Big Muddy Awards

  • Water fills a muddy rut on a steep portion of Chase Hollow Road in Bradford, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Water fills a muddy rut on a steep portion of Chase Hollow Road in Bradford, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A long stretch of potholes lines Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A long stretch of potholes lines Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A truck heads toward a bad stretch of Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A truck heads toward a bad stretch of Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A vehicle passes a winding stretch of Downer Forest Road in South Strafford, Vt., on April 21, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A vehicle passes a winding stretch of Downer Forest Road in South Strafford, Vt., on April 21, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A deep rut runs through the middle of Gilley Road in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    A deep rut runs through the middle of Gilley Road in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruts a-plenty and thick, deep mud at the intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Ruts a-plenty and thick, deep mud at the intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sunset on Kibling Hill Road  in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    Sunset on Kibling Hill Road in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads is ugly with deep mud and ruts in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

    The intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads is ugly with deep mud and ruts in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014.
    (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Water fills a muddy rut on a steep portion of Chase Hollow Road in Bradford, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A long stretch of potholes lines Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A truck heads toward a bad stretch of Swamp Road in Newbury, Vt., on April 16, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A vehicle passes a winding stretch of Downer Forest Road in South Strafford, Vt., on April 21, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A deep rut runs through the middle of Gilley Road in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • Ruts a-plenty and thick, deep mud at the intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • Sunset on Kibling Hill Road  in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)
  • The intersection of Potash, Kibling Hill, and Town Farm roads is ugly with deep mud and ruts in Tunbridge, Vt., on April 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

Are dirt roads driving your vehicle, rather than the other way around? Has a thick layer of rock-studded muck taken up residence inside the wheel wells? Does driving faster than 40 mph make your car vibrate violently?

Don’t worry, it’s only mud season.

As far as the fifth season goes, dirt-road dwellers and town officials say they’ve seen worse. Still, it’s been bad enough.

Valley News readers sent in dozens of nominations for the Big Muddy, with the vast majority targeting Vermont roads. Not surprising, perhaps, given that according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation, about 8,700 miles, or just over 55 percent, of the state’s public roads are unpaved. In New Hampshire, according to the state’s Department of Transportation, just 20 percent of public roads are unpaved.

Like last year, frost heaves, potholes and, of course, the chocolate-colored slop from which the season takes its name were the chief challenges readers identified this spring.

After exploring the back roads, we chose these “Big Muddies.”

Chase Hollow Road, Bradford, Vt.

Chase Hollow Road takes top prize for depth of ruts and its unique ability to trip a vehicle’s electronic stability control system — a recent drive there had the thing beeping like a college student’s alarm clock.

Like many of the nominees, Chase Hollow was misleadingly tame in some places. From Route 25 it appeared easily passable, but about a mile in, the narrow road was striped with sticky ruts half a foot deep. Our vehicle (a small SUV) bottomed out, grinding through gashes as deep as 14 inches.

Initially, the mud was heaviest on the sides of the road, but more driving revealed a generous layer spanning the entire surface.

On one stretch, runoff had worn a hole in the ground and started working its way underneath the road. Melting ice on the road amped up the slip factor, making driving near Devil’s Den trailhead especially exciting.

Gilley Road, Strafford and Tunbridge

Gilley Road, which stretches from Strafford to Tunbridge, came in second. Seemingly endless bumps and mud thicker than mashed potatoes had us wondering if it was even driveable.

But then, a closer look revealed tire tracks in the gritty sludge. Somehow, even during these most murky months, the road remains in use. The mossy stone walls lining the road are lovely but also menacing during this time of sudden slide-offs. A tour of the road on a recent mild rainy afternoon had the back end of our car wriggling like the tail of a tadpole.

“I know of trucks that have been getting stuck there. I got stuck there last weekend, and now I have to carpool to work,” a Valley News staff member wrote in a recent email. “It’s a fantastically muddy road.”

Swamp Road, Newbury, Vt., and Topsham

Swamp Road took third in this year’s Big Muddy. The road, which runs from Topsham to South Ryegate, is only partially paved. A recent ride there found it not so much muddy as slick, and pockmarked with potholes. Thoroughly pockmarked. Relentlessly pockmarked.

And there’s no getting around the 5-inch-deep ruts that score the width of the road, regular as a grooves on washboard.

On a recent afternoon, a pickup truck traveling toward a section in Newbury bounced wildly up and down, headlights flashing in the rain. Had its owner installed hydraulics? Nope, it was just the holes making the truck lurch.

Driver Jim Hart was taking his dog to the groomer from his home in Topsham. “It’s eight miles to South Ryegate, but during mud season it seems like 48,” Hart said, laughing.

Potholes have been more of a problem than mud this year, and Swamp Road isn’t the only place that’s been affected, longtime Newbury road foreman Bob Beaulieu said. “There isn’t a (road) that stands out.” He’s not sure why so many potholes have popped up this year. “I have no explanation, other than the rainstorms,” Beaulieu said.

Overall, however, it’s been an ordinary mud season, he said last week. “If anything, so far it has been a little less (muddy) than normal.” So far.

“Until all the frost is gone out of the ground,” Beaulieu said, “it’s not over.”

Honorable Mentions

Runners-up include the steep and narrow Kibling Hill Road, which stretches from Tunbridge to Strafford. A gray-brown muddy mess with unavoidable ruts not as deep as they were grabby, it’s memorable for profound puddles, deep enough in places for splashes to swallow a windshield.

For those with control issues, the road could prove an opportunity for personal growth — being gripped in its greasy grasp somehow makes a driver feel simultaneously out of control and firmly guided, as if taking an urgent journey on a curving conveyor belt. Its intersection with Potash Hill Road and Town Farm Road was a marvel.

The consistency of brownie batter, the wide, flat crossroad emitted an unmistakable warning: hurry up or sink.

Tire marks in every direction reflected previous drivers’ attempts to navigate the turn, only to spin out in the shin-deep mud.

Corey Hill Road in Newbury, another runner-up, was selected for the sheer variety of challenges it offers. A recent morning found it slathered with slick mud, gravel patches dotting the deep, soft surface. And wet. Water flowed in deep ditches along both sides of the road, which in one spot was also skimmed by an overflowing pond. A puddle in the center of the road stretched for 60 feet.

The road also provoked a novel vehicle noise, one that was different from those created by all the other roads: instead of a “slosh,” the car let out a mysterious “crunch” as it rolled along, which we chose to ignore, hoping that ignorance truly is bliss.

Downer Forest Road, which branches south off Route 132 in South Strafford, started off smooth. Soon, however, nearly unavoidable 6-inch or 8-inch-deep ruts appeared.

Full of dark brown goop, this road and the adjoining Downer Road were places of much fishtailing, especially in the hilly sections.

In New Hampshire, readers nominated a section of Philbrick Hill Road in Springfield, as well as Burnt Hill Road in Orange. Greensboro Road in Hanover , just west of Great Hollow Road, “is worth some special recognition for having probably the largest frost heave dip I’ve ever seen,” Richard Kaszeta said in an email. “It’s easily a foot deep, and I’ve seen dozens of vehicles bottom out and scrape their undercarriage on it, including my own 4x4 truck.”

For all its challenges, mud season does have its upsides. Learning to navigate treacherous thoroughfares can build driver confidence. And when you’re not pulling neighbors’ cars out of ditches, the season can be downright peaceful.

Donn Downey and his wife recently built a house on Wrights Mountain Road. Spring runoff washed away part of their driveway, but the road was not as bad as it’s been as in previous years, said Downey. The road gets a good bit of traffic to Newbury, and in the summer, hikers use it to access popular trails.

The muddy spring months, he said, are “a rare quiet time.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 602-727-3305.

Related

Muddy Awards 2013: The Best of the Worst

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mud season descends upon the Upper Valley each year, whether we like it or not, bringing with it a pleasant wave of warmth but also laying waste to the dirt roads so common around the region. Frost, which has spent months underground, begins to thaw, and when it does it turns some well-traveled rural roads into a sort of paste …